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I’m in a New York City Recession State of Mind: Quick, Hand Me a Burger and Fries

October 5th, 2010 · by Isaac Seliger · 3 Comments

As I write this, K and I are flying back from a 12-day vacation in New York City, AKA the Big Apple and the City so great they named it twice. I knew from New York, New York, it’s “a hellava Town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” so getting around was not a problem. A grant writer’s vacation in NYC is something of a busman’s holiday in that I was overwhelmed by the never ending implications of the city and its residents for writing. Other than a few days about 100 years ago as a 16-year old, my scattered trips to NYC have been confined to brief business trips. Hard as it is to believe, and although I’ve written lots of proposals for NYC clients, my direct impressions are pretty much based on movies,* Law & Order, and Seinfeld.

Walking uptown, downtown and seemingly all round Manhattan, interspersed with lots of subway rides, put me in a New York [Recession] State of Mind. If one looks closely, even in such tony neighborhoods as the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Central Park South, Chelsea, etc., the signs of the lingering Great Recession are everywhere. We were able to easily buy 1/2 off seats to a fairly big name Broadway musical and opening night seats for Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. The latter should not have been possible at the last minute.

Virtually every restaurant we visited was offered some kind of deal, and New Jersey Transit is discounting their AirTrain service into Manhattan by 25%. Casual conversations with assorted New Yorkers confirms that the Bronx may still be up, but business is decidedly down and optimism is hard to find. We saw plenty of vacant store fronts and many ads for apartments with “asking price” rents that imply negotiation. As I gazed at Central Park from our 32nd floor room at the wonderful Le Parker Meridien, I thought about the impact of the tough economic times is having on the army of tip-dependent service workers who make it possible for the swells to glide by in town cars and tourists like us to move seamlessly from world-class Jazz at the Village Vanguard to low-down Blues at Arthur’s Tavern. I know that hard times for the working poor means equally hard times for the nonprofits that provide services to them and to the even less fortunate, who are without jobs or are entirely dependent on safety net services.

Since Manhattan is probably the best walking experience in America and the NYPD’s reverse community policing** policy means that tourists can feel quite safe in the neighborhoods they are most likely to visit, it was easy to get an exceptional street level view of the City. As a grant writer, I was struck by the almost complete lack of obvious homeless and panhandlers. The homeless seemed confined to church steps, while most begging took place on subways (perhaps a captive audience is best). I assume the relative lack of visible homeless in touristy areas is due to a combination of the City’s aggressive police presence combined with hefty funding for homeless services agencies. It can’t be due to an absence of actual homeless, because the dire economic times means they must be somewhere. Perhaps a reader who works for a NYC homeless services agency can shed some light on this.

Walking around Manhattan, I was also struck by the dichotomy of schools. While in Central Park, we saw squadrons of prep school kids in snazzy uniforms jogging and otherwise using the Park, generally under the very close scrutiny of staff. Basically, junior Holden Caulfields, who were a particularly startling sight near the Dakota Apartment Building at which John Lennon was killed by a self-professed Caulfield wannabe. In contrast, we saw several public schools, all of which were multi-story affairs with tiny playgrounds, generally surrounded by concertina barbed wire. Public school students are stuck behind fences, while their much more affluent peers are free to roam what is the most spectacular “public” park in the country. This curiosity will give me new perspective in writing proposals for at-risk youth in Manhattan. It seems to me that they may be most at risk of being injured trying to escape their educational compounds. While we were in New York, the ever non-ironic New York Times reported that City schools had once again turned in lower scores on state standardized tests. More bad news for citizens and good news for grant writers.

NYC is a town of sidewalks, at least this time of year, and much of the life of the City flows along them. It was startling to encounter hoards of furtive smokers on virtually every sidewalk. This is despite the fact that cigarettes cost $14/pack in the City! Apparently, astoundingly high taxes and draconian restrictions on where one can smoke have not had all that much effect on smoking. About 20% of all Americans continue to smoke, but I suspect the rate is higher in NYC. Oddly, the poor and the well-off are more likely to smoke these days than middle income folks. Mayor Bloomberg frequently rails against smoking and junk food. But New York sidewalks confirm that he hasn’t exactly succeeded with smokers and has had even less success with junk food. Endless food carts and wagons, dispensing hot dogs, shawarma and various other greasy delights.

The City is also filled with all manor of high-end fast food enterprises, like Shake Shack, Burger Joint, and Five Guys & Fries. Additionally, it seemed like every neighborhood had some sort of street festival going on, which meant even more junk food for sale. My favorite was an “Apple Festival” on the Lower East Side, which featured apple sausage, sauerkraut with apples, mashed potatoes with apples, apple fritters, apple pie and just about every other apple concoction except plain apples!

Apparently because of Mayor Bloomberg’s obsession, all fast food outlets post the calories of their fare (I think the winner was the double bacon cheeseburger with large fries at Nathan’s in Coney Island weighing in at 2,200 calories or so—I opted for the Coney Dog at a modest 300 calories and shared fries). None of the upscale restaurants we visited lists calories on their menus, so only fast food frequenters are confronted by the unhealthy reality of what they are about to eat. In part because of a new national consciousness about childhood obesity and related problems highlighted by First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and similar efforts, we’ve written many anti-obesity and pro-nutrition proposals in the last few years. No one in NYC seems to have gotten the memo because I did not see a single Tofu on a Stick and Carrots in a Bag stand in all of Manhattan.

My tour of Manhattan convinces me that the need for grant writers will only increase in coming months. Economists may nod gravely to one another that the Great Recession ended last year and elected officials may pontificate about what is good for us. On the streets of New York, however, tough times are evident, while much of Manhattan is covered in a pall of smoke from cigarettes and french fries frying. I visit LA often enough to know that things remain pretty grim there and now I can confirm the situation is similarly hopeless, but not extreme (or is is extreme, but not hopeless?) on the East Coast too.


* Best recent movie featuring Manhattan as a backdrop is the great thinking man’s monster movie, Cloverfield.

** Rather than using community policing, the NYPD floods selected areas like Times Square with a huge number of uniformed officers. Since they can’t do this in every neighborhood at all times, non-targeted areas must have almost no police presence. While I was in NYC, the NYT reported that the City’s gigantic Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant application was rejected by the Department of Justice, with much fulminating from Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Having written lots of COPS proposals over the years, I am not surprised, as it is pretty obvious that, whatever the NYPD is doing, it is not community policing.

Tags: Travel